Itchy eyes? Sneezing? Blame the dreaded mountain cedar

01/13/2014 1:54 PM

01/14/2014 11:23 AM

A recent warming trend — Sunday’s high was a spring-like 74 degrees — coupled with strong southerly winds has awakened a seasonal monster.

Mountain cedar has reared its ugly head.

Also known as ashe juniper, its trees are exploding with pollen, causing allergy sufferers to rub their eyes, sneeze nonstop and generally feel miserable.

“We could tell it was going to be a doozy,” said University of Tulsa biology professor Estelle Levetin, who issues pollen forecasts during the cedar season.

The pollen count reached 279 in the Fort Worth area on Monday, the highest for mountain cedar this season. That pales when compared to the jaw-dropping pollen counts seen in Austin and San Antonio this weekend, which were both in the thousands, but it was still enough to cause problems for those susceptible to the potent allergen.

“The warm weather and the high winds are a really good combination to get mountain cedar to pollinate,” said Normand Tremblay, a Fort Worth allergist.

The really bad mountain cedar days come in advance of cold fronts, when warm temperatures and strong, southerly winds helped push the pollen northward into the Dallas-Fort Worth area from the Texas Hill Country, where the highest concentration of mountain cedar trees are located. Mountain cedar can also be found just to the west and southwest of Fort Worth.

“It doesn’t take very long to get here,” Tremblay said. “On windy days, it can travel hundreds of miles.”

University of Tulsa researchers documented in January 1999 that pollen traveled from Central Texas to London, Ontario, near Toronto.

‘I think it’s a bad season’

Levetin said the cold December led to the mountain cedar season starting about two weeks later than normal. Typically, it needs to be 50 degrees or higher for the trees to start pollinating. But Levetin said other issues, such as humidity, can also play a role in whether it pollinates.

But Levetin said researchers were expecting a bad season after looking at the Hill Country trees in December. They found a high number of cones, which is where the pollen is stored. Only the cold temperatures in December and early January kept the pollen from spreading.

“I think it’s a bad season; it just got delayed a little bit by the cold weather,” Levetin said.

Now that the warm weather is in place, there is little to halt the pollen. Highs are expected to remain in the 60s through Thursday and another Arctic outbreak doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

“I’m not seeing it right now,” said Eric Martello, a National Weather Service meteorologist. “Right now, we seem to have one front coming down right after the other but none of them are very strong.”

Levetin said northerly winds should help drop cedar counts early this week but the counts could go right back up when the winds shift back to the south.

What North Texas is feeling is nothing compared to Austin and San Antonio.

In Austin, the pollen count reached 16,675 grains per cubic meter on Saturday, the highest levels in 16 years over the weekend, according to Austin TV station KVUE. On Monday, it had “dropped” to 4,309.

In San Antonio, it was even worse over the weekend. The pollen count for mountain cedar reached 22,670 on Sunday and was 5,950 on Monday.

Mountain cedar in the state capitol is so legendary that Gov. Rick Perry once talked to the Star-Telegram about the allergen’s potency.

“Cedar is a brutal thing,” Perry said in 2002. “And I’m just kind of allergic to it. The molds actually hammer me worse than cedar. But these poor people who really are allergic to cedar, I mean, it debilitates them. It’s horrible.”

‘Try to stay indoors’

Tremblay, the Fort Worth allergist, said the advice for coping with mountain cedar remains the same: Do whatever you can to avoid exposure to the pollen by staying indoors on the worst days and take preventive medications to avoid the allergic reaction.

Over-the-counter medications that can be helpful include Allegra, Zyrtec and Claritan. Nasal sprays such as Nasalcrom can also be helpful to some and eye drops can also be useful. All the medications work best if they’re taken as preventive medication before the onset of symptoms. Window filters can also be added to prevent pollen from getting inside homes.

If symptoms don’t improve within a couple of days, contact your physician.

For those with the severest reactions, James Haden, another Fort Worth allergist, advises taking a shower immediately after being outdoors and placing clothes in the washing machine to prevent pollen from spreading throughout the house.

“On windy days mountain cedar is a problem for the nose and eyes,” Haden said. “Sufferers should try to stay indoors on windy days and keep windows closed in homes and cars.”

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